by Orhan Coskun and Laila Bassam
ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey’s intelligence chief has met numerous times in recent weeks with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus, four sources told Reuters, contacts encouraged by Russia which is seeking to bring the two countries closer together in order to focus his efforts on the war in Ukraine.
According to a source close to Damascus based in the region, Hakan Fidan, the director of the National Intelligence Organization in Turkey (MIT) and Ali Mamlouk, the head of the Syrian secret services, spoke again this week in the Syrian capital. Hakan Fidan also visited Damascus for two days at the end of August, according to the same source.
These meetings reflect the Kremlin’s desire to secure its back in Syria, where Moscow has been intervening militarily since 2015 in support of President Bashar al Assad, while Russia is preparing for a long conflict in Ukraine, explain this source and two Turkish officials.
“Russia wants Syria and Turkey to solve their problems and conclude certain agreements (…) which are in the interest of all, of Turkey as of Syria”, sums up a high-ranking Turkish source.
Russia, adds a Turkish security official, is gradually reducing its military presence in Syria and has asked Turkey to normalize its relations with Bashar al-Assad in order to “accelerate a political solution”.
Any normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus would be a turning point in the war in Syria, which began eleven years ago with the bloody repression of pro-democracy demonstrations and left hundreds of thousands dead.
Turkey continues to provide essential aid to the rebels in northwestern Syria, the last major pocket of resistance against the power in place since Damascus succeeded, with the decisive support of Russia and Iran, in coming out of the armed insurrection on the rest of its territory.
Turkish soldiers are deployed in the region, qualified as occupation troops by Damascus.
Significant obstacles remain to be overcome prior to any warming of ties between the two countries, starting with the fate of the thousands of rebel fighters and millions of civilian refugees in the North West.
THE INFLUENCE OF IRAN IN QUESTION
During their meetings, Hakan Fidan, one of the very close advisers of President Tayyip Erdogan, and Ali Mamlouk discussed the conditions for a possible meeting at a higher level between the foreign ministers of the two countries, according to the two Turkish officials .
According to the senior Ankara official, Turkey does not want Iran or the pro-Iranian proxy militias – already widely deployed in Syria – to fill the void left by a withdrawal of Russian forces.
Russia also does not want Tehran to expand its influence in Syria, adds the head of the security services.
According to a diplomat stationed in the region, Moscow has already withdrawn a limited number of troops from southern Syria over the summer, notably in areas near the border with Israel where forces aligned with Iran have suite deployed.
The source close to Damascus contacted by Reuters as well as another senior pro-Assad official in the Middle East ensure that contacts between Ankara and Damascus have been fruitful, a third source close to Syrian power even mentioning the start of warming.
All of these sources are speaking on condition of anonymity, and neither the Russian Defense Ministry, MIT, nor the Syrian Information Ministry would comment or respond to requests for information. comment.
WHEN ERDOGAN CALLED ASSAD A TERRORIST…
A Turkish-Syrian rapprochement was unthinkable until recently, when President Erdogan called his Syrian counterpart a terrorist and believed that there could be no peace in Syria as long as Bashar al Assad remained in power. The Syrian president accused the Turkish head of state of stealing territory from Syria.
However, the tone changed noticeably last month, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was not ruling out a dialogue with Damascus, while the question of the repatriation of some 3.7 million Syrian refugees is shaping up to be a major theme in the campaign of the next year’s elections in Turkey.
The Turkish president has met several times recently with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, with whom he will meet again on Friday in Uzbekistan.
After a recent visit to Moscow, Tayyip Erdogan said that Vladimir Putin had wanted Turkey to cooperate with Damascus along the border between the two countries.
Ankara has meanwhile threatened to launch a new military operation against US-backed Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. Russia has expressed its opposition to such an eventuality.
(Report Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Laila Bassam and Maya Gebeily in Beirut, French version Jean-Stéphane Brosse, edited by Sophie Louet)